May 06, 2009

OSC goes to Tokyo

Orson Scott Card takes a trip to Tokyo and loves it. He gushes, to be sure (the Japan Tourist Board should hire him), but in a couple of hundred words he describes the experience better than most "correspondents." Dave Barry did a good job too (Dave Barry Does Japan). Journalism needs more sharp-eyed writers and fewer reporters.

Card (rightly) rhapsodizes about the trains in Japan, but (wisely) notes that

If we had stations in the same proportion to the population, they would be so far from most of us that we would never walk to them; and if we had stations in the same proportion to the area, there would only be a relative handful of riders per station.

Sorry, if you build a Shinkansen here, they will not come unless you can do something magically overnight about population density. Right now, my niece is in Numazu on her mission, a "little" town out in the sticks with a population of 205,000 and a population density of 1,100/square km.

Salt Lake City has about the same population, and even with expansion checked by the Wasatch Mountains and the Great Salt Lake, a population density half that. As Card points out, "America won't benefit from urban railways until we create neighborhoods that cluster rather than sprawl."

One way to do that is to peg the price of gasoline at $5.00/gallon (and adjust for inflation). But both sides of the political aisle hate the idea, which means that outside a small number of urban corridors (where zoning and eminent domain present other problems), high-speed rail in particular is a wasteful pipedream.

Expensive gasoline doesn't discourage driving in Japan as much as exorbitant tolls and taxes, and literally having no place to park in the big cities. Out in the 'burbs, cars are very popular, but Japanese car makers aren't rushing to sell electric cars in their domestic market. They can't compete with small displacement gasoline engines.

Pretending for a moment I'm not a running dog libertarian capitalist, the best "exotic" solution is a multi-fuel turbine/electric powerplant that would provide the energy densities that batteries can't by themselves. But I'll bet that improvements in conventional technologies will outpace abracadabra solutions for decades to come.

When it comes to mass transit in the U.S., alas, the biggest obstacles are geography and the stubborn laws of thermodynamics. All those CAFE standards and Volt-style subsidies will only exacerbate the so-called "problem"--the dream of a home in the suburbs--and won't make Mother Nature change her mind.

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# posted by Anonymous Dan
5/06/2009 12:49 PM   
What precisely is the problem that trains are supposed to solve? I have nothing against them but they only succeed as a form of mass transportation when the alternative choice is an even less desirable option. Social engineers who love trains start with the premise that people should want to, if not have to, live & work in high densities. There are tens of millions of Americans who prefer not to emulate cattle being shuttled from the feedlot to the slaughterhouse. Transform their communities into high density clusters and they will respond by moving somewhere less crowded. It is precisely all this open land in America that has helped define American culture and self-determinism. Do-gooders who deign to rope it off and constrain personal mobility should be shipped out off to Paris and forced to waste their lives pan-handling in a dank, yellow, fluorescent-lamp lit metro station.